By Stephanie Filio
Peer pressure plagues every generation. Why do kids try to influence each other to do things that might negatively impact them? Why do kids listen to their peers instead of their own moral compass? The problem is really based on one of the strongest qualities human beings possess: our ability to socialize and work in a group. We work together to accomplish common goals and, ultimately, survive together. But at times, our social nature works against us, and we confuse the suggestions of others for things we need to do to harmonize and remain accepted.
We often call peer pressure in adults “group think” or “mob mentality.” Groups of people do crazy things and are often unable to explain their behavior once the group disperses. For students, schools are a hotbed for group conformity because of the close proximity to peers in a confined space, the multiple age-related stressors, and the social media rabbit hole. But the good news is that students are also spending their days in the shelter of the educational environment. Within the classroom, educators can help students build skills for facing peer pressure.
Breaking It Down
When I grew up in the 1990s, every after-school special begged teens to understand the importance of thinking about their actions before following their peers. I heard these warnings and promptly thought, “I don’t listen to peer pressure”—probably because my peers told me to think that. Twenty-five years later, peer pressure continues to lead students down misguided and often dangerous paths, such as drug use, bullying, social media, and even pregnancy and suicide. So how do we teach students to resist peer pressure and act autonomously and thoughtfully? We teach them with the same academic tool they use every day: evidence-based reasoning.
Maturing the thinking skills students can use when facing peer influencers will sharpen their social skills, something students can take far into adulthood. Let’s break down the components of reasoning that will help students spot and evaluate peer pressure:
- Read cues. What are people saying to me, and how do I know they are expecting me to follow them?
- Analyze information. How does the pressured behavior fit how I typically behave, and how does it compare to the norm I see around me?
- Reason sources. What qualifications do the influencing people possess, and would I trust them based on their historical stances?
- Interpret meaning. Is there an overarching suggestion that goes beyond the immediate action, and will I be associated with a larger group if I conform?
- Anticipate consequences. Are there consequences to this action, and who will be responsible for bearing the expense?
- Form conclusions. Should I accommodate the pressure I am feeling by fitting in, or should I alter my behavior?
Beginning to Embed
Embedding guidance concepts into content courses can offer the best opportunity to help kids spot and combat negative peer pressure. For example, the scientific method is all about questioning and theorizing outcomes. Social studies discusses the history of combatting the norm to find liberation. Math requires formulaic evaluation and working through layered word problems.
Because peer pressure is rooted in communication and language capacity, English is my go-to curriculum for embedding social-emotional topics. I am a firm believer that developing strong writing and reading skills in students is the best way to combat their urge to conform. By working with teachers within their lesson plans, counselors can stretch guidance instruction beyond the typical one-time classroom visit. If you are new to embedding your guidance curriculum with content areas, try these steps to get started:
- Align with standards. To figure out if you can embed with content classes, first check out your state’s standards for curriculum tie-ins. For example, in my state of Virginia, the Virginia Department of Education requires that in eighth-grade English, students learn analyzing and evaluation skills, practice interviewing, and develop a keen eye for valid resources.
- Bake brownies. This might be the most important stage. See next step.
- Check out your school’s timeline. Meet with your curriculum specialists and content teachers during their professional learning and planning time. In doing so, you can find out when teachers will be presenting what topics to students. You can add input here and work on overall curriculum that includes peer relationships and interpreting social pressures, or you can ask who would be interested in collaborating with you to copresent a concept and related social material. Explain what reasoning skills you will be aiming to strengthen. Bringing brownies will help teachers be more willing to take you on and bring you into the fold.
- Do your homework. Once you find a good time to join in, ask for a copy of the lesson plans. Make additions and alterations to fit your goal. For example, find readings that revolve around peer relationships, use activities that will allow students to evaluate sources, and offer opportunities for students to evaluate cues and to practice slowing down reactionary responses. This is a great time to continue collaborating with the teacher—teachers are expert magicians and know just how to present information in a way that will stick. More brownies might help here too.
- Co-teach! If your schedule allows, co-teach the lesson so that you are there to continue steering the conversation. As students respond to the lesson, let the content teacher offer responses to questions about the subject matter, while you respond to social-emotional questions.
Changing the Energy
As I write this, I am reflecting on a rash of fights that have been occurring in my hallways. I asked a student today what I needed to be doing more of in order to stop the fighting. As always, talking to a student proved more insightful than any professional resource. She said, “I don’t know. It’s like kids are always saying they’re mad at someone; there’s always drama. But after that first fight, it’s like now everyone is saying, ‘Oh, I could do that too,’ and then everyone else is telling them to do it.”
Eerie timing, isn’t it? Maybe I should write a blog post on four-day work weeks and pay raises for teachers! Either way, embedding social-emotional learning in content classes provides the widespread energy change that students often need to jump-start behavior changes. Broad and historic issues, such as peer pressure, can receive the right amount of camouflage for student buy-in and double the application for a deeply rooted learning experience.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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